Names have always fascinated me. I like interesting names. I like to know why people name their kids what they do or why they call them by the nickname they do. Growing up, I knew a girl who went by the name Twozee (as in 2Z). She was the second child in the family, and her dad nicknamed the kids Onezee and Twozee. I don’t remember if there was a Threezee or Fourzee.
When I meet sales people whose name I’m not sure how to pronounce (when looking at a name tag), I simply ask ask them to help me pronounce their names correctly and to tell me about their names. Most people are honored to tell you about his or her name. Names are an important connection to other people. It’s how we start to get to know someone, the first step in the possibility of friendship or letting someone into our lives.
Both of my parents were my school teachers, and they were both nameless to me during the hours of the day when school was in session. Let me explain. The summer before I started 3rd grade, we moved to the small town where I grew up, and that meant being a new kid in class and having a new teacher. My mom was that new 3rd grade teacher and I was the new 3rd grade student. It was intimidating, to say the least, for a seven-year old.
The school I attended was so small that the 5th and 6th grades were together in one class, with the 5th graders in a row on one side of the room and 6th graders in one row on the other. The middle row contained a mixture of the two grades. My dad taught me in 5th and 6th grades and senior high English. Of the twelve years of primary and secondary schooling, I had my parents as teachers in some capacity for a third of those years.
The thing about having parents for teachers, especially in such a small school as I attended, is that everyone knows the teacher is your parent and that makes things complicated for you as a kid. If you do well in school, then your parents must have helped you. If you didn’t do well in school, everyone wondered why your parents didn’t help you. The other kids assumed you were the teacher’s pet, whether there was any indication or not. My parents went out of their way not to show favoritism. Because my dad was also the local a preacher in addition to teaching school, we kids grew up feeling under the microscope.
One particular problem to which I never found a solution was what to call my parents in class. They were addressed as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” by the other students. It seemed so silly to call my parent/teacher by “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” and calling them Mom or Dad in class was very much out of the question. As a result, I never addressed them by any name whatsoever while in class and during school hours throughout my entire first through twelfth grades. I would simply raise my hand and wait until I was recognized. I wasn’t embarrassed to have my parents as teachers; I just didn’t know what to call them. Therefore, during the hours school was in session, my parents remained nameless for all those years.
As most parents do, my husband and I put a lot of thought into our kids’ names. We poured over books of baby names and looked up their meanings. We tried to find names that would represent our children well in life. We tried to choose names that couldn’t be cruelly morphed into something derogatory by mean kids. We also carefully picked out names for our kids that couldn’t have a “y” added to the end of them.
The propensity in my husband’s family was to add a “y” to everyone’s name or to find a nickname that ended with a “y” sound, no matter how awkward it made the name to say. Virginia became DeeDee. Mark became Marky. Delbert became Debby (a guy nicknamed Debby?!). Joe became Joey and so forth. Forever. The names stuck forever. It didn’t help that the last name ends with a “y” and every son married a gal whose first name ended with a “y.” It was a family full of sing-songy names, and we didn’t want that to saddle our kids with that. Nevertheless, I ended up with nicknames for my kids. I called Eric “Tiger,” although I’m not even sure why. That’s what I called him one day when he was really little, and it just stuck.
How we settle on nicknames is a mystery to me. We carefully pick our kids first and middle names and then may or may not use their given names. We give people “pet” or nicknames. Why are some spouses and significant others called “sweetie” and some are called “honey” and some are called “babe” or whatever? I don’t know.
For some reason, after I know a person for a while and begin to care about them, I tend to add “Mr.” or “Miss” to their name at times. I would call Alina “Miss Alina.” I call our granddaughter “Miss Maya.” Eric’s friend was “Mr. Jon.” I don’t know why I do it. I don’t do it all the time; just when I feel particularly close, affectionate, or connected to that person. I don’t plan it; from time to time, it just slips out from a connection in my heart – a fun, extra, special connection to people in my life. It’s my special way to nickname.
Whatever the reason for nicknames, they are usually special terms of endearment for people we love or care about. It’s like we want that person to know how special they are to us by attaching a special term of endearment to them. We don’t expect just any old person to be able to call our special person by our special term of endearment. Anybody can call my husband Joe, but it’s my special privilege to call him “sugar” or “sweetie.” My special names for Jason were “Jay,” “Mr. Jay.” Anybody could call him Jason, but those of us who really loved and cared about him would call him by the nickname Jay.
The thing about losing a child is that you notice every time your child’s name comes up. After Jason died, It wasn’t easy to hear about someone named Jason. The year Jason was born, it was one of the most popular names of the year, so that meant that there are a lot of Jason’s out there who were still living after Jason died. Someone else’s child named Jason and around my Jason’s age hasn’t died and is out and about doing what young adults his age are supposed to do. Over the years, hearing about someone else named Jason has gone from feeling like a knife jab to the heart to more like a pinprick. It’s also been difficult to hear about people named Jay. The names Jason and Jay have a very special and powerful tie to deep places in my heart and in my memories.
When I was looking for a job a couple of years ago, I was interviewed by a man named Jay. As it happened, he offered me the job. Even though more than ten years had passed since Jason’s death, I had to be honest with myself while considering his offer and ask myself if I could work for someone named Jay, my special nickname for Jason. How much would it bother me? Was I at a point in my life where I could work for someone around Jason’s age (give or take a few years) who went by the name of Jay? I decided to accept the job offer and I have been working for him for a year and a half now.
I have tried to keep business at business and my personal life to myself for the most part. If someone asks me why we left Seattle, I say, “Oh, that’s a long story” and change the subject. I’ve gotten pretty good at deflection and avoiding. With all that we have walked through since Jason died, I have a tendency to hold people at arm’s length. To say that I am guarded would be an understatement. I am very cautious about letting new people into my heart and into our lives.
When people hear that you have lost a child, situations instantly become awkward. Most people treat you differently, ranging from talking to you hyper-sympathetically to avoiding you like a pariah to never mentioning it again and everything in between. Or they try to make you feel like they understand what you went through because they knew someone who had died or had some pet who died or had gone through a difficult situation. They don’t know what to do or say, and so it’s easier to say nothing. If I do open up and say something, people are still hesitant or reluctant, even after all these years, take the time to find out who Jason really was or to find out how his death affected our lives. I know it’s a tough subject to talk about…to even think about. I understand that, and I’ve pretty much come to a place where I accept it and it doesn’t bother me so much any more. But when people have hurt and deserted you at the worst time time in your life, it’s hard to let people in. I am cautious with my heart; I keep my guard up and an emotional distance in place.
As I headed out the door for a few days off at Christmas, though, I made a comment to my boss and called him “Mr. Jay.” It stopped me in my tracks. At first I felt like I had betrayed my boy, my own precious Mr. Jay, but then I realized that it was a healthy thing. I can’t keep holding people at arm’s length forever just in case they might hurt me or cause pain. I can’t not care about people because they have Jason’s name or nickname.
My boss is a good guy. He is kind and generous. He treats me with respect and appreciates the skills that I bring to the table. He thanks me for the work I do. We are a good team, and I realized, as I called him “Mr Jay,” that I cared about him as a person. He was no longer a person outside my sphere of caring. Yes, he is my boss, but I truly CARE about him as a person. I had extended a nickname to him. I had let my guard down and let him into my life as a person I really like and care about.
My boss has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and is having surgery on March 3rd. Yes, that day. The March 3rd that is the anniversary of Jason’s death. This time of year is a difficult and emotional time for me, anyway, and tears are just under the surface. The anniversary of a child’s death is difficult for any parent, no matter how many years it’s been. I would be dishonest if I said my boss’s surgery hasn’t really rattled me.
I have tried to keep business as business during the day so I can help my boss the best I possibly can. I may cry in the shower – for my boss and because this is a tough time of year for me and I miss my boy so much - but I try to be all business once I get to work. We have been so busy the past three weeks, making sure things are in place for continuity of business. He has the best surgeon in the world, and things sound somewhat optimistic. I guess, at these times, you hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
I want everything to go well. I don’t want anything to happen to my boss. I want him to be okay. I care about him. I gave him a nickname.
© 2014 Rebecca R. Carney